‘Tell me, what brings you to our hinterlands?’ His eyes smiled.
 
I was comforted by his easy demeanour, especially after the unnerving lone trek through the footpath leading to his house. It was a good 10 minutes hike from the nearest motorable road and through the files of silver oaks, standing tall and majestic, like soldiers watching over the forest. My mobile was dead, funny because it was charged to the hilt when I started.
 
Earlier, he had given me clear instructions over the phone to reach his house.
 
‘I am an intern reporter from The Hindu newspaper’, I said shifting in my seat, and ‘I wanted to write about the recent bizarre happenings in this area. I was glad when you agreed to this interview. I tried getting in touch with the former residents but was not able to reach any of those who abandoned the area. I almost gave up, when you rang me.’ I chattered away to calm myself. 
 
He sighed and continued, ‘I am sorry to break the bubble. But there is nothing strange happening here. But you can go ahead with the interview. Maybe, there will be a story from me that is worth publishing’ he smiled.
 
A few days ago, I had stumbled upon an article that reported about people abandoning Area 153 adjoining Megamalai Reserved forest. The small settlement of forest officers and guards were seeking collector’s intervention regarding their relocation. Many of them were taken ill during the preceding months, some even admitted in hospital with sighs of tactile hallucinations.
 
I had a healthy condescending attitude towards God and His nemesis. But that’ was not what brought me to the jungle today. I wanted to live up to my father’s name as an Investigative Journalist. I suspected the ‘ghost story’ was spread maliciously to make it easier for something illegal.  
 
The verandah was cool as the breeze took away the mid-morning heat. The house was located in the clearing surrounded by the silver oaks. The silence of the jungle was broken only by droning dragonflies and occasional cries of lion-tailed monkeys.  
 
I was thirsty.
 
‘Would you like to have some mint tea? By the way, I am Rajesh’ he extended his hands and as I shook his hands, I saw another man carrying the tea tray towards us. He placed the tray on the table daintily and joined us.
 
‘And this is my partner, Hari’, Rajesh continued.  
 
Hari poured out the golden brown liquid for us and extended a cup to me. His effeminate manners made it hard for me stop staring at him. When I realized I was gaping, I apologized.
 
Rajesh smiled, ‘That’s alright. We get that often. We are married and we moved into this place a few months ago to get away from the society that has never been kind to our lot’.
Sensing my unease, Rajesh said, ‘Don’t worry. You are safe with us than with most of the straight men.’
 
I did not disagree and we all laughed lifting the air of stifling formality among us.
The tea was refreshing, a hint of mint peekabooing between its bitterness, just the way I liked it.
 
‘Hari ran a restaurant before we shifted here. In fact, I fell in love with the food and then married the chef’, Rajesh said savouring his cuppa.
 
‘So, shoot’, Rajesh said.
 
I fished out my scribbling pad, switched on the recorder and placed in on the table.   
 
‘Have you experienced any bizarre incidents in this Area 153?’
 
‘I believe there is an explanation for everything. There are physical laws and nature’s secrets that still evade our comprehension.’ Rajesh said relaxing in his cane chair as Hari looked on.
 
‘Those who shifted from here were forest officials and their minions, who had scant regard for nature. The tribals, living deep inside, go by the law and standard set by forest. They feel safe and so do we. When a man violates the jungle, he should be ready to face her wrath’, said Rajesh.
 
‘But one man called Murugan…’ I began
 
***
 
Murugan could not believe his luck. He had wriggled out a green note from the gullible college students when he had threatened to report them to the police for venturing into the reserved area. Now after downing a bottle of confiscated beer and a few tumblers of arrack, the forest watcher tried to get to his cottage on the edge of the forest. Maybe he would visit Malar on the way. But she was becoming difficult off late. Things were easily done when she was a teenager. These tribal women had the strength to drain out ten men, he thought as he imagined her chocolate skin gleaming in sweat.  He tried to balance precariously on the makeshift bridge over the gushing stream.
 
He felt a sudden icy draft accompanied by a strong smell of rotten eggs. He hugged himself wondering what animals’ remains caused such a stench. He then felt a slight pressure on his shoulders, as if a child was straddled on his shoulder. The bridge wobbled under his unsteady steps. By the time he reached the other bank of the stream, the weight on his shoulder was unbearable and the stench was nauseating. He could hardly lift his bowed head.   The last thing he remembered was falling face first on the marshy banks.
 
***
 
‘That Forest guard, Murugan is a drunkard who bullied the tribals and got his way around. It could be his alcohol doused brain talking.’
 
Rajesh’s explanation did not stop me from probing further.
 
‘What about the Range Officer incident?’
 
‘Ahh, That one was a pity’, Rajesh shook his head
 
***
 
Jayakumar was a family man. Whatever he ‘earned’ went straight to his wife and the children in Chennai.  He maintained a miserly life as a range officer, just enough to trap his soul inside his body. In fact, there were days when he would sleep in the Range Office floors when the bigwigs visit the sanctuary for private parties. Some days, the parties involved unwilling women too, their useless screams disturbing the thick silence of the jungle.
 
He was now sitting in his sparsely furnished government bungalow staring at the white cloth bag. He had counted it. It had 1000 numbers of hundred rupees notes. If it could reach Chennai in a week, his wife could finalize the marriage hall that his daughter liked.  The question was how. It was a gift from the local politician for turning a blind eye to a few acres of unauthorized tree felling.
 
As he was contemplating, he felt the room turn cold. Strangely the thermostat showed a comfortable 24 degrees. His neck felt uncomfortable and he remembered he had not worn his neck collar for a while. Suddenly, he felt he was being watched and realized that the weight on his shoulder had nothing to with his cervical spondylosis. It was then that the putrid smell hit him hard.
 
‘My money’, he thought.
 
He got up with difficulty, for not the weight on his shoulder was unbearable. He reached for the white cloth bag when he doubled up fell.
 
The last few days of his life, Jayakumar kept screaming ‘Get off me, Get off me’ and then passed away, delirious, in the ICU of the town hospital.
 
***
 
The Range officer was dead and one forest watcher was raving. The guards and the forester, seven of them in all, gathered in the thatched office one evening. After a few rounds of arrack, emotions were simmering high.
 
Selva, the senior most of watcher, said, ‘I know these are the handy works of the uncouth tribals. They have a hallucination causing concoctions and herbs. Hit them where it hurts hard, and they will spill out the truth’.
 
He punched his fist in the air. Others clamoured their agreement. Alcohol and fear brought out the demon in them. They tumbled towards the tribal settlement.

On reaching, they screamed obscenities and demanded all of the monkeys to line up in the courtyard. The fire lit courtyard looked ominous, with the trembling women, children and all, huddled in fear.  The Head, a frail old patriarch beseeched them to calm down. He was struck down in one blow. When Masaan, his son protested, he was mercilessly beaten with a baton, his animal-like howl causing the sleeping birds to flutter away.
 
Selva thought it was not getting torturous enough.
 
‘Hit them where it hurts, I say. Drag a woman out’ he suggested.

A guard approached the huddle and pulled out Thenu and dragged her to the centre of the courtyard. She was pinned down by two men, not without struggle, while Selva was unzipping his pants.
 
Busy as he was, Selva, wrinkled his nose in irritation. ‘Some idiot seems to have shat in his pants’ he said.
 
Suddenly, all the seven men covered their nose and tried not to retch. The whole place reeked of a rotting carcass. The residents though looked on, unaffected and even relieved.
 
Selva made a strange convulsing movement as if his he was resisting someone bouncing on his shoulder. He screamed. But his comrades had their own problems to attend to. Few were vomiting their guts out at the far end of the courtyard, while the men who pinned down Thenu, were getting ‘someone’ off them, flailing their hands above their heads in vain.
 
At dawn, alerted by Massan, when the authorities and the ambulance came for them, they found three of them crying in delirium, while the other three were stunned into silence, all standing around the strangely twisted body of Selva.  
 
***
 
‘Maybe, it was their sins that weighed their soul down,’ Rajesh jested.
 
Clearly, he was happy that they were not there.
 
Suddenly, it struck me.
 
Were Rajesh and Hari involved in the illegal felling or poaching?
 
Was their environmental concerns just a facade for their sinister motives?
 
I could not help wondering. I had kept myself together for so long, but now my nerves were giving away. I had broken the first rule of Investigative Journalism, taught by my father.
 
‘Always cover your Back. Investigative Reporting is not half as romantic as shown in the movies and the world out there is not half a good’, he had said.
 
‘How long would it take for my body to be found in the woods?’, I wondered. With nobody to report me missing, chances are that my body will rot away, undisturbed.
 
‘You are being silly’, Rajesh said.
 
‘What?’ I blurted out, startled that I had thought aloud.
 
‘You are nervous and I can see that in your eyes. But truly, you can trust us. I presume you know about the haunted building as well. Finish your tea and we will visit the building’ Rajesh said and added, ‘You can freshen up if you want’.
 
There was my chance to escape. I hesitantly entered the sprawling living room with French windows that let the bright light flood it. Hari lead me into the adjacent bedroom. I opened the grill-less windows in the bedroom as silently as I can and heaved myself up on the ledge. When I jumped out I lost my balance and fell down. I gathered myself up quickly, only to find Rajesh and Hari observing me from a distance, leaning on a tree trunk, with a knowing smile.
 
Soon, we were on our way to the haunted building, evening sun beating down our back.
My anxiety now turned into resignation,  as we walked up the narrow pathway, Rajesh leading the way, followed by me and Hari in that order. But, as long as I was alive, there were chances of escape. Maybe I would come across some trekkers or even the police.   
 
‘It all began three months ago around the time we moved into our new house.’ Rajesh said to no one in particular.
 
‘I was a physics professor and used to frequent Hari’s restaurant. All through our four-year courtship, we were mocked at, called names our cars were vandalized and whatnot. Then when the political scene changed, things took a turn for worse. Veiled threats became open warnings. The animal carcass was thrown into our compound. ‘You are next’, a note stapled to the dead dog’s forehead read.’ Rajesh paused when he recounted his nightmare.
 
‘Maybe, It was Rajesh’s strange ritual to recount his life before he killed his victim. Maybe it was to take away the guilt of killing an unthreatening ‘nuisance’, I thought.
 
‘Hari wanted to get away from all of this, to go away to a place where we won’t be judged for our love. He was originally from a hill town and he dreamt of moving into a house surrounded by woods’, Rajesh said. I thought I heard Rajesh whimper.
A few minutes passed in silence and the only sound we could hear was the trudging of our feet.
 
‘So, the sand mafia?’, Rajesh questioned out of the blue.
 
I was shell-shocked. He had done his research. My surname should have easily given me away.
 
The scene of that dreaded day played out like a movie in my mind. My father had gone to the gate to pick the Sunday paper when two masked men in a bike stopped before our house. One pulled out a 7.65 mm bore country gun and drew two fatal shots. I was right behind my father when he collapsed on me, blood spewing from his wounds. I held him, wailing and helpless, as the light in his eyes dimmed slowly.
 
I was jolted back to the present by a sense of deja vu. Had I not passed by this place before? The wild dahlias growing at the foot of the silver oaks, the clear stream gurgling on my right. The unmistakable bougainvillaea creepers that had formed an arch over the gate leading to the house, Rajesh’s house.
 
‘You will know how it is to hold your loved one pleading him not to go away when his life is ebbing away excruciatingly from you’, Rajesh had turned to face me.
Tears were streaming down his face.
 
‘One day, I returned from college to find Hari lying naked, in a pool of blood oozing from his neck. Ironically, he was raped too’ Rajesh said, not blinking his bloodshot eyes.  
I turned back to look at Hari.
 

He was not there. I spun around and there I was at the gates of a derelict house run over by thick vegetation, the electric pink bougainvillaea flowers adorning the arch of the gate.

 
 
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About the Author Sarveshwari Sai Krishna

Sarveswari Sai Krishna wishes to write like J M Coetzee, cook like Nigella Lawson and earn like Beyonce and at the end of the day, not look like something the cat dragged in. If wishes were horses.